General Counsel Jordan Breslow on the Importance of Bringing Creativity to the Workplace
In business and economics, the oft-discussed concept of history repeating itself is understood through the prism of what are called “cycles.” Peaks and valleys can be plotted out on charts and one is able to identify, mathematically and visually, with a given company or economy’s history.
While this is undoubtedly effective for finance, one lesser explored thought is the way in which certain strategies may go in and out of fashion over time (in this case, the value placed upon entrepreneurship). For its proponents, one needs to look no further than their smartphone to see what its determined ingenuity can bring to life.
Yet for all the magnificent inventions that have come about in the past hundred years, the elegant word “entrepreneur” seems to have been mostly replaced by its colder counterpart, “business.” The general public perception is that brainstorming, in business, is about boosting the bottom line and that creativity and color have been largely expelled, or at least confined to what can be contained by people in pressed suits and products like PowerPoint.
Thankfully, companies in the Technology sector from SoHo to Silicon Valley and Brooklyn to the Bay Area have ushered in a kind of renaissance, where executives and employees are encouraged to transcend uniformity and bring their own unique ideas to the table. Few embody this melding of business acumen and artistic appreciation better than Etsy’s General Counsel, Jordan Breslow.
Harmonizing Passion and Profession
As someone whose background and passion was in music, even holding it as a major as an underclassman, Jordan brought refreshingly relatable experiences which informed his interest in pursuing a career in law; namely, an incident where a store refused to refund his money for a defective tool and his reading of a publication by Bay Area Lawyers for the Arts (now called California Lawyers for the Arts) explaining copyright to musicians while copyrighting his own music in high school.
“When I went to law school there was one class on intellectual property, so I took it. There’s a wider array offered now, but I took what I could take, and I had two career thoughts: one was to be a consumer advocate lawyer and the other was to be in the arts and entertainment. I hung up my shingle, more or less, and tried to find work in both fields.”
Describing the good fortune he’s found to have worked so extensively within the sphere of intellectual property and copyright law as they pertain to technology, Jordan explained how his work as a lawyer has been anything but drudgery.
“I have been very fortunate in my career in that I have worked in the area of technology and technology law that is pretty constantly evolving. That keeps me on my toes, keeps me interested, and keeps me learning, and learning is certainly a passion for me in and of itself.”
“Since I’ve been in tech, I’ve found that I’m drawing on my creative resources all the time and the lovely thing about technology is that much of it relies on the same body of law that musicians and artists rely on, so it still very much involves copyright, trademarks, and licensing. So I’m still playing in the academic area that touches on my personal passions.”
“…learn from other people’s experimentations and failures.”
Teaching, Leading, and Promoting Personal Expression
Though many executives embrace and accept the mantle of mentorship, alluding to their experiences on either side of that relationship, it’s less common for one to come with the experience of having also been employed as a collegiate and law school professor, as Jordan has, spending time teaching at University of San Francisco State University, and UC Berkeley School of Law.
“I thoroughly enjoy teaching and if I’m being honest with myself, I’d say there’s a performance aspect of it that I enjoy. I think I’m good at taking apart topics that are complex or that most people find not to be interesting and conveying them in a way that’s interesting and clear.”
Also citing the increased dialogue a professor and teacher has with their students as one moves up through higher education, Jordan also addressed the importance of having this communication and open dialogue in the professional realm, as someone who manages and mentors contemporaneously.
“I have always felt a commitment to the people who I manage to help them grow in their careers; that means mentoring, it means making sure they have opportunities to work in areas that they haven’t been exposed to so they get more well-rounded, it means critiquing their work and giving suggestions. Any number of things that you think of as mentoring, it’s always been important to me to do that.”
“In the practice of law, there are a lot of intangibles that are not even remotely taught in law school, such as how to interact with the board of directors or how much information to dump on the CEO when you first meet him or her. I can probably do more mentoring in that area than ‘what is the law of X, Y, or Z?’”
Insofar as the culture at Etsy, which Jordan described as “business unusual instead of business-as-usual,” he spoke about the “relaxed intensity” which helps to produce results while retaining individuality and fun around the office.
“There’s definitely a freedom and a little bit of encouragement to be quirky. We have cute, whimsically decorated offices and office spaces, we have meals together as a company twice a week. So we do a lot to keep it fun and even though I would say it’s relaxed in that sense, there’s also intensity. There’s an urgency about what we do and a real sense that it’s important that we do it right, do it the way that our members would want us to do it, and the way that we envision business to be. It’s sort of a relaxed and intense environment at the same time.”
An Emphasis on Entrepreneurial Spirit
Finally, in terms of advice for fellow professionals and especially younger ones in the nascent stages of their careers, Jordan spoke to the importance of peer groups and also of creative credentials he likes to see on resumes of prospective members of his teams.
“When you graduate from law school, you don’t know what to do. It can be one of those situations where you’re afraid to admit that you don’t know what to do, until you find out that everyone the room has that same feeling. Maybe somebody in the group has had an experience and can share it or maybe you can just take comfort in the fact that so many in the group have had the same struggles as you.”
Speaking of his own personal network, of in-house tech counsels in Manhattan and Brooklyn which meet every couple of months to go out to dinner and email constantly, Jordan said that networking for professionals of any age can be a “great learning resource, to be able to learn from other people’s experimentations and failures.”
Although a significant portion of his own experience has been in-house, Jordan actually described his ideal candidate as someone with both in-house experience and time spent at a firm where one is subjected to, among other things, a critique of their work, as well as some entrepreneurial endeavor(s) somewhere in their background, as he cited a firm he started early on in his own career.
“For people who go straight out of law school straight to an in-house position, I actually think you’re missing something. There’s the disciplined way of thinking, of organizing your time, of colleagues looking over your work which you often don’t have in-house. Even if you know that’s not the career for you, I still think it’s a useful thing to do for a couple of years.”
“Everybody’s looking for something different. I really like seeing people who’ve done something somewhat entrepreneurial. If you’re in law school and over the summers you earned your money delivering furniture with your own start-up, that’s just as good to me (as a legal internship).”
“What you find in your career is that as a lawyer what you are, really, is a part of business enterprise and the more you can think like a businessperson, the more valued and helpful you’ll be. It’s nice to see people who’ve tried and faced the actual challenges of running a business.”
Jordan’s approach is, in many ways, a throwback to a time when entrepreneurial enterprise mattered at least as much as efficiency. The idea of being an entrepreneur is to meld both the creativity of something with its profitability. When the latter overshadows the former, “business” can become as Jordan said, “a dirty word,” and evoke all the worst Mad Men images. When there’s balance and harmony, however the results can be pretty extraordinary; “business unusual,” indeed. ♦
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